Album Review

Blue-Collar Nostalgia: Matthew Ryan's "Boxers"

Matthew Ryan - Error

Boxers is the perfect Fall release - full of nostalgia, longing and self reflection, Matthew Ryan pulls on our heartstrings as he does the strings of his guitar. If Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs captured a moment in time for suburban kids, Matthew Ryan’s Boxers is its blue collar companion. Equal parts Springsteen, Westerberg and Ryan Adams, Matthew Ryan has been a powerhouse of a storyteller for almost two decades. A forefather of the Atl-country scene, Ryan has yet to receive as much commercial success as some of his contemporaries.

With that said, Matthew Ryan has a rabid and loyal fan base. It’s easy to root for a guy who is constantly giving. Beyond a sincere appreciation of his supporters, his music and songs are written for his fans. Ryan’s Boxers is a rallying cry extended to his blue collar town roots and his loyal followers.  

For nearly two decades, Ryan’s been making consistently strong albums, each with the feeling that his next album will be his breakout release … and once again, I find myself listening to a gem of an album thinking, maybe this time ….

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The title track to Boxers kicks off the album with a song of searching, of yearning, of desolate desperation - I love you all/ With all my guts/ And even still/ It’s not enough … How do you say goodbye / To a dream that just won’t die / Is it a feeling or is it a lie? It’s possible to love your family and your friends, but still long for more; at some point, we all reach a point where it might be easier to give up our dreams, but Ryan urges us to keep on fighting. He also addresses the power of music to inspire and stoke the coals of our dreams when the fire starts to die.

Nothing sparks nostalgia more than thinking back to one’s first love, because with very few exceptions, that first love is also your first broken heart. Ryan’s “The First Heartbreak” speaks of the curse all of our first loves leave us with - When I’m gone and still haunting you / And you’re miles from 22. For me, not only did my first heartbreak come at 22, I also lived off of Route 22, and everytime I drive back to my old stomping ground, memories of first love and loss are not far behind.

While Ryan has a soft spot for the underdogs, “We Are Libertines” is a less flattering reflection of small town lotharios birthed from hopelessness. If “Boxers” is a rallying cry, “We Are Libertines” is what happens when all hope is lost, or possibly never there to begin with - And no one says stop / And no one says no / And no one says please / Please come home. Even with his critical gaze, Ryan still makes a case for the bad boy as he is a byproduct of urban decay and/or lack of parental concern.

“Until Kingdom Come” is a collage of seminal song references and their power to inspire. One of my favorite allusions evokes The Pogues and The Beatles - So let’s sing Dirty Old Town at the top of our lungs / Don’t look now here comes the sun - for it’s a perfect scene for the characters and settings that Ryan’s been singing about for his entire career. We know this crew, this lot of friends, having drunk until dawn on a cold winter night … escaping despair through a drink and song.

Sometimes hope and dreams are not enough. In “This One’s For You, Frankie”, the title character suggested all my dreams burn and fall like paper planes. And it’s not just Frankie’s dreams that are coming to an end A Killian / A fresh smoke / I saw the graveyards in his throat. A song seemingly in memoriam of Frankie, a man who dreamed big, and had an even bigger heart; yet, sadly, dreams are not always enough.

“Boxers” closes out with a plea to those who feel they’ve lost it all - If you’re not happy / It’s alright / Just hold on tight / And make it through the night / It’ll be alright / I promise you / A few days from now / You’ll be glad / You stuck around. It’s easy to see how lonely, hopeless nights can sometimes lead to darker thoughts; but once again, Ryan urges us all to keep hope alive and make it to another day.

While Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” spoke to the affluent, “Boxers” is an anthem (albeit, a bit bleaker one) to the blue-collar crowd. Both albums draw on nostalgia, memories that are both good and bad, and remind us of who we are and how we got here. Boxers will be available on Tuesday, October 14th. 

Adam Kukic is the host of WYEP's The Coffeehouse which airs Sundays, 8am-11am (EST). Listen live and hear archived WYEP Coffeehouse Conversations.